Lent 101: relationship with God

Genesis 17:1-22; Mark 8:31-38

Welcome back to this our second meeting of Lent 101.
A couple of housekeeping items:
first, if you were absent last week, or if you miss any of our times together,
classy notes will be available on the church website.
Just go to the worship page and the sermon archive link.
They are also already available on my blog.
Second, hard copies of the syllabus are available in the narthex this morning—
if you haven’t had a chance to look at that on-line yet (again on the church web site).
Third, do note that the first written assignment is due, well,
according to the syllabus today!
We’re offering an extension though of up to two weeks—up to Sunday, March 18.
This assignment is the one page paper entitled: “I am the God-story.”
We’re asking you to write down your experience of God.
How do you interpret your story as part of God’s?
The point is not to stress you out about one more thing you’re obligated to do!
Really.
The opportunity is to choose to take some time to think about something important.
Fourth, the Wednesday night lab began this past Wednesday.
Those meeting in the Eutaw Place Room at 6 p.m.
will be considering questions and issues
raised in the six-week study guide: Hungry for Justice.
If you want your own copy of the text to read along,
or if you can’t make Wednesday nights, but want a parallel experience with others,
copies of the guide are available in the church office for $10.
Fifth, several of you have asked if there will be a test.
In response let me refer you to a quote from last semester’s
“the practice of improvisation”: “[m]ost of the Christian life
is faithful preparation for an unknown test”
(Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
[Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004] 80).
And that’s all I have to say about that!
Sixth, we have our thought for the day: “the whole of my life
constitutes my relationship with God.”
And seventh, our learning objective of the day: “God is real to me.”

I. Introduction
We talk with some degree of familiarity in our faith tradition
about our relationship with God—
our personal relationship with God.
Now that’s just part of the language of our faith
with which many of us grew up—
the stories we were told—the songs we sang.
It is, after all, one of the basic ways in which the Bible speaks of God.
And there is an undeniable comfort to it—
not just to the very familiarity of the image,
but also to the positive associations most of us have with personal relationships.
Such a comfort that we protect the image
even through we don’t really know what it means—
even though we don’t really know what we mean by it:
I have a personal relationship with God—
as if the familiar positiveness of the phrase—of the expression
justifies the usage.
“Oh, everyone’s saying it … and always has.”
But, if we’re honest, aren’t we more familiar with the language
than the meaning?
Or is that just me?
Do you know what it means?: “I have a personal relationship with God.”
Or do you, too, sometimes wonder?
This is the question, as we look to find ourselves
today on this second Sunday of Lent.

II. Overview of the Season
A. Ash Wednesday
B. Lent
1. definition
2. name
3. history

We remember starting Lent on Ash Wednesday with the reminder of our own mortality.
Last week, we identified Lent as the 40 days (not counting Sundays)
between Ash Wednesday and Easter—so to Silent Saturday—
from the reminder of our deaths to the silence of Jesus’ death.
We didn’t say it this way but we pointed to Lent as focusing us on
limitless possibility within the acknowledged limits of time and space—
pointing us to God-with-us in our living.

To our week by week growing knowledge of Lent,
we add today the realization that Lent is not biblical.
Absolutely nothing about it in the Bible.
The name is nowhere to be found.
There’s no command about it to be kept.
It’s not part of biblical tradition.
So it’s not that we’re being obedient to God’s word,
but rather that we’re choosing to celebrate Lent.
It is opportunity, not obligation—like the one-page papers we’ve assigned!

Lent is, however, deeply rooted in our faith tradition—
already established by the year 339 of the common era
when Athanasius wrote that it was celebrated all over the world—
almost 1700 years ago!

And while our Lenten tradition is not biblical,
it is related in the biblical tradition to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness being tempted.
It is related to the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness
moving toward the promised land.
It is related to Jesus’ steady movement toward Jerusalem and the cross.

So there’s something about Lent that has to do with faithfulness—
with consistency through the trials and tribulations of life.
There’s something about the movement
that is the people of God following in the way of God.
I’m reminded of that great Pierce Pettis lyric:
“I can’t go with you and stay where I am”
(Pierce Pettis, “You Move Me,” Making Light of It, Compass Records, 1996).

It is precisely as we focus on the experience of Jesus,
on the movement that is a people following God—
the movement even through the valleys of the shadows of death—
the movement that looks death right in the eye and keeps moving.
It is precisely in such movement
that we might receive with integrity the gift of Easter—
the gift of God’s grace—
the surprise and the joy and light
that can only come to those whose committed movement
carries them even through the griefs and shadows of life.

III. Scripture
Genesis 17:1-22
Mark 8:31-38
We consider two texts again this morning:
one of the wonderful Abram stories from Genesis,
and a gospel story from Mark about Jesus and the disciples at Caesarea-Philippi—
these two texts connected somehow in the minds of those
who chose them as lectionary texts.

So of all the things we could consider about our Old Testament text,
a couple of things we do consider today:
first, Abram’s in conversation with God.
And conversation’s such a key component to relationship.
And it’s very much a back and forth kind of conversation.
iI’s not just Abram talking to God; it’s God responding to Abram.
It’s clearly a dialogue, not a monologue.
Here’s one of those Bible stories told in such a way
as to affirm a personal relationship with God.

Second thing to consider: it’s hard to believe—God’s word—God’s promise.
It’s laughable. Abram falls on his face he’s laughing so hard.
“Here we are making plans to move to a retirement home,
and you’re telling us to get the nursery ready?!”
What a ridiculous promise.

Finally, God’s word is one oriented to the future.
It’s a word of promise—a word of hope.
And I would simply remind us that hope is often just what we need
to keep moving.

Now let’s just put it on the table, shall we?
This Genesis story—not so much our experience of God, is it?
A one-on-one conversation?
I don’t so much think of a beer after work or in the alley with God.
Let’s meet at Atwaters for a cup of coffee.
Come on over for dinner and let’s talk.

So, into our experience of God, comes the incarnation—
God embodied—God in conversation with people.
And in our gospel text, we overhear
one of those conversations between Jesus and the disciples,
testimony to the personal nature of their relationship.
Jesus came to be God among us with whom we can have a heart to heart.

But, and I hate to be so picky, it’s not the same for us, is it?
It’s not like that for us.
Okay, so Jesus partied at weddings
and went fishing,
and he walked with them and he talked with them ….

My great-grandparents were embodied,
and I have been told stories about them—
what they did and where and with whom.
I do not have a relationship with them.
When I think of being in relationship with someone,
there’s something about that someone being not just embodied,
but also present to and with me—embodied in my present experience.

So I’m not sure either text this morning helps us
with this idea of a personal relationship with God.
Oh, we can certainly see that this idea of a personal relationship
is embedded in our sacred texts.
It’s the very basis—the foundation of our lectionary texts.
I just still don’t know what it means.

So looking for something that might mean something …
notice our gospel text, like the Genesis text,
has that back and forth kind of conversation.
Jesus is responding to the disciples who were responding to him.
And our text is part of a larger conversation—
a dialogue, not a monologue.
How vitally important to affirm, these days, that, as depicted in Scripture,
God’s relationship with us is made manifest in conversation—
not in decree—not in command—
not in some kind of my way or the low way attitude.

And our gospel text, like the Genesis one, is hard to believe.
But I want to take a minute here to think a little bit together about how it’s different.
Because here it’s not a promise that’s hard to believe—
(“Even though, great grandma and great grandpapa—
even though you’re cashing in on all your AARP benefits,
you’re going to have a baby!”)—
it’s not a promise that’s hard to believe,
but a premise—a premise about God.
Here it’s not so much hard to believe what God will do,
but who and how God is.
God embodied—God-with-us will suffer, and be rejected and be killed.
How vitally important to affirm, these days,
that God’s power will be made manifest in suffering initiative,
not in rigid power, not in dogmatic violence.

And finally, our gospel text, too, is oriented forward,
and, I would suggest, comprises a word of profound hope
for those who seek to follow in the way of God.
Why? How? Because Jesus is telling us how to be like him,
and the way of God—following God—
doesn’t have to do with getting to be rich and powerful.
It doesn’t even have to do with being right.
It’s rooted rather in a way of reprioritizing—
a way of relating to our world and to other people as Jesus did.

Of course, I’m still stuck without any clarity about what it means
to be in personal relationship with God.
So I want to take a digression here.
Chase a rabbit.
We tend to think of relationships as personal—between people.
That’s our first thought.
And that’s certainly how the way our Bible stories are written would make us think.
But maybe—maybe we’re too quick
to jump to this idea of person to person personal relationships.

So I got to thinking about other relationships we have.
With our cats (whether they think so or not!), and our yards.
And I got to thinking about how we all have a relationship with the earth.
It’s mediated to great extent these days by the multi-national
agriculture and biotechnology corporations.
And for the most part, as long as they deliver what we want,
we’re fine with that—removed from that more personal relationship with the earth—
that more intimate relationship.

And here, personal and intimate, have more to do with
the importance of the mutuality of responsibility.
We need the earth to survive. The earth needs us to take care of it—
whether you want to anthropomorphize this as mother earth or not.

So we all have this relationship with the earth,
and for the most part, as long as we get what we want,
we’re fine with our mediators—
we’re fine removed from that more personal relationship with the earth—
that more intimate relationship.
But it’s not fine.
It’s not.

One of the Service Ministry projects this year is a community garden.
Because too much is mediated these days,
and we need to get our hands back into the dust.
We need to be reminded that even as we expect of the earth,
it expects of us—
that there is a mutuality to our relationship with the earth—
mutual benefits and mutual responsibilities.
And if we’re going to survive—thrive,
it’s a matter of balance. It’s a matter of justice.
And if we’re not attentive—personally attentive to this balance—
if we’re not invested in justice—personally invested in justice,
we will go hungry—along with those who already are.

IV. The Tragedy of Our Time
Part of the tragedy of our time is that we’re not hungry for the right things.
And I’m not talking about fruits and vegetables instead of fast food and junk
(though that’s important too).
No, it’s that we’re not hungry for justice.
(Did I mention the Wednesday night study guide Hungry for Justice?)
The truth is, we don’t care about justice. We care about us.
And as long as we’re maintained in our comforts and conveniences,
we’re not going to ask too many questions about the mediators
we allow to distract us from personal attention to matters of balance and justice.

We’ve allowed too much to come between God and us.
As such, we’ve removed ourselves from the more personal, intimate relationship.
We’ve allowed too many mediators to come between us—
whether that’s church, religion, a particular theology, a way of talking about God—
who is so very clear:
walk blameless before me. Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Pick up your cross.
Deny yourselves.
Deny ourselves?

“Open our eyes that we might see,” we sing
while all too often we live with our eyes squeezed tightly shut.

Imagine “parents going into a supermarket and buying their child
some chocolate as a treat. As they are doing this,
let us imagine that they notice someone stealing from the same store.
They are angered by what they see and tell a security guard
who promptly arrests the shoplifter. In this situation
we witness the law abiding parents and the criminal who breaks the law.
The problem, however, is that we can fail to look at the situation in its wider context.
It is likely that the chocolate bar which the parents bought was made with cocoa beans
picked in Ivory Coast by children the same age as their own,
children who have no rights, who work inhumane hours,
and who suffer continual abuse. Here we can say that while it is clear
that there is a law and a crime that transgresses the law, we can miss
the way in which the legal system itself, in its failure to intervene
in how the chocolate gets to the shops, is itself criminal.
The point here is that the parents can feel rightly moral and just
while wholly participating in an immoral and unjust system”
(Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe Is Human, To Doubt, Divine
[New York: Howard Books, 2011] 94).

The fact is that simply by virtue of being born into our culture,
we benefit from the exploitation of others.
Simply by virtue of being a part of our society,
we’re a part of priorities that have given us
“the best stadiums and the worst schools
in the developed world” (Robin Meyers, The Underground Church:
Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012] 33).

And we seem to be okay with that—
especially as long as our kids are in the good schools.
And church can become part of the way we hide from ourselves
our complicity, our need to confess,
in the face of God personally ignored insulted rejected denied.

“There was once a young minister sitting in her house on a Sunday afternoon
who was disturbed by a frantic banging on the front door.
Upon opening the door, she was confronted by a distraught member of her church.
It was obvious that he was exhausted from running to her house
and that he was on the verge of tears.
“What’s wrong” asked the minister.
“Please, can you help?” replied the man.
“A kind and considerate family in the area is in great trouble.
The husband recently lost his job, and the wife cannot work due to health problems.
They have three young children to look after,
and the man’s mother lives with them as she is unwell and needs constant care.
They are one day late with the rent, but despite the fact
that they have lived there ten years with no problems
and will likely have the money later in the week,
the landlord is going to kick them all onto the street
if they don’t pay the full amount by the end of the day.”
“That’s terrible,” said the minister. “Of course we will help.
I will go get some money from the Church fund to make up the shortfall.
Anyway, how do you know them?”
“Oh,” replied the man, “I’m the landlord”
(Rollins, 81-82).

We don’t want church—we really can’t afford for church
to become our excuse for not being who we should be—
for not assuming that risk, not shouldering that cost—that cross—
to allow the landlord—to allow us—
to continue our exploitation,
and feel like we’re helping the very ones we’re exploiting
without ever doing anything to stop the exploitation!

V. Word for the Day
So our word for the day—
our transformative word for the day is not really a word: “real-ationship.”
To be in relationship with God has something to do
with being real in all our relationships—
with being honest—and with striving for integrity—
for blamelessness. There’s a challenge!

Our corresponding tragic word for the day is “illusion”—
the idea—no, the truth that we don’t have to be real in all our relationships—
that it is often, in fact, easier not to be.

VI. We Live in Hope
These are challenging times—hard times for so many. And yet.
The church is in transition. Many would state the church is in dire straits—
that all faith communities are in dire straits. And yet.
And yet it is in times like these
that we have a word—a word entrusted to us—
a good word—a real word—good news—
an absurd premise—a laughable promise.
And in utter denial of what the world thinks is important—is definitive,
we move in the way of God
to bear the good fruit and vegetables of God’s way of being
which is to live abundantly—to live blamelessly—
which is to walk with God in, I would say, personal relationship.

VII. Assignment
Last week you were given daily assignments.
This week, you have one assignment to carry you through the week.
I want you to grapple with these questions:
How does my living testify to my resistance to the way things are?
How am I a member of the resistance—the rebellion?
How do I confront the death stares of those around me?
How do I subvert the systems and priorities—the dark forces of our times?
How do I choose not to ignore them?
How do I educate myself about what interdependence truly means?
How do I commit to not being defined by the ways of the world
but by my following in the way of God?
See this will all help you with your paper. Thoughtful, aren’t we?

And I’ll tell you, given the reality that this way of being can only be worked out
in community and conversation—part of our answer has to do
with a beer after work or in the alley,
a cup of coffee at Atwaters, dinner and conversation,
partying together at weddings, and grieving together at funerals,
going fishing and walking and talking …
and maybe we could, in truth, record our conversations with God as dialogue too.

Our children need to see in you—we all do—need to see in each other
in our ongoing conversation—our walk with God—our relationship with God
a questioning and a rejecting of the status quo—
an absurd word that has us taking turns falling on our faces laughing—
but together telling a story bigger than that of our selves,
together telling a story bigger than that of any of our families—
bigger than that of our community,
bigger than that of any church
bigger than that of our country—
a story encompassing justice and the redeeming of all creation.
Now there’s some homework!

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